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Blizard Institute - Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

Look at those genes – research offers better health outcomes for British Bangladeshi and Pakistani people

David van Heel

David van Heel

Professor of Genetics

In collaboration with

South Asian people are more likely than other population groups to develop certain health problems, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However, they are seldom represented in clinical research studies. Genes & Health aims to redress this balance. Having recruited more than 55,000 South Asian research volunteers, their ground-breaking health programmes are changing lives.

Genes & Health, a project launched by Queen Mary has recruited British Bangladeshi and Pakistani people from East London, Bradford and Manchester. This large, long-term study has analysed the DNA (genomes) of volunteers and built a world-class resource for approved health researchers and scientists to better understand health and disease. This is important because British South Asian people are disproportionately affected by some diseases. For example, they have the highest rates of heart disease in the UK and are six times more likely to have Type 2 diabetes than the rest of the UK population.

Genes & Health was initially funded by the Wellcome Trust and has also received generous support from the Medical Research Council, Barts Charity, HEFCE, and the NHS National Institute for Health Research, and a consortium of life sciences industry partners. 

Genetic laboratory scientist at work

Adding genetic information to NHS health record data

British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi volunteers donate a saliva sample and share their GP and hospital NHS medical records anonymously and securely with the study team at Genes & Health. Volunteers can meet the team in GP surgeries, visit a study centre in East London, Bradford or Manchester, or ask for a test kit to be sent to them by post.

Everybody’s genes (DNA) are different, but understanding these differences can unlock important understanding of how our bodies work. The Genes & Health team study are experts in studying these gene changes and are discovering unique changes only present in British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. By linking this with information in medical records, they can make important discoveries to understand why people have a higher or lower chance of getting a particular disease, or how new drug treatments might be developed to improve health in the future.

Genes & Health are working across many areas of health and disease. One example is their work in type 2 diabetes where studying gene changes can help understand which young people are more or less at risk of getting the condition. Previously, most research into type 2 diabetes (T2D) has focused on white European volunteers, but a Genes & Health study led by Dr Sarah Finer was able to examine the genetic changes associated with type 2 diabetes in 22,490 British Bangladeshi and Pakistani volunteers. Their discovery will not only help them to identify patients at risk of developing diabetes much earlier, but will also help them to understand how to better treat the condition to prevent diabetes complications such as eye and kidney disease from developing.  

Our new scientific data and more volunteers will enable us to do even more to improve health in British Pakistani and British Bangladeshi communities as well as the wider UK population.
— Dr Sarah Finer

Identifying patients at risk

More than a thousand of their volunteers have been invited to specialist clinics at Genes & Health when their genetic results showed they could be at heightened risk of developing certain conditions. Among other conditions, the team has studied familial hypercholesterolemia. Men with a gene linked to this condition have a 50 per cent chance of having a heart attack before the age of 50.

The researchers recalled 50 patients they identified who carried the gene. They were given the diagnosis and started specialist treatment. They were encouraged to stop smoking and had their high cholesterol managed. They were also able to inform and check out family members who could also be at risk of hypercholesterolemia. Through this programme, Genes & Health predict that they have prevented 50 heart attacks.

Other investigations offered at the recall clinics include a standard blood sample, liver scan, bone scan and many other tests, helping to research a wide range of health conditions.

Genetic paperwork

What does the future hold?

Genes & Health is well on track to meeting their goal of recruiting 100,000 volunteers. The work on studying heart disease and diabetes continues along with many other projects. Future studies will focus on other major health priorities for British Bangladeshi and Pakistani people, including mental health, dementia and pregnancy health.   

Local community members who have not previously had an opportunity to get involved in research are now gaining the benefits of this world class programme. Thanks to the huge contribution of Genes & Health volunteers, the research team looks forward to making improvements in health and reducing inequalities.

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